Thursday, November 21, 2013

Costumes in Worldbuilding - A Google+ hangout report with VIDEO!

I was joined for this discussion by Erin Peterson, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Brian Dolton. It was Halloween, so I was wearing my costume! Unfortunately, that's not precisely evident in the video (not that I suppose it matters that much). We started out by talking about some of the many issues surrounding costumes in our own world, as a source of inspiration for people working in our own or in other worlds.

When we dress up for Halloween, often it's nice to "be a thing," by which I mean dress up as something which other people will recognize. Erin said she usually dresses up using clothes of a certain historical era, but it does lead to people asking, "Who are you supposed to be?" Recognizability is certainly an issue, but a costume that is recognizable to one group may not be recognizable to another (who do you want to be recognizable to?).

There is also the question of when it is appropriate to wear a costume. It used to be that outside of Halloween and the occasional costume party, costumes were simply not worn (I did not mention the theater here, being more focused on costume-wearing by members of the general population). However, science fiction conventions are definitely places where it is appropriate to wear costumes, and cosplay (the Japanese abbreviation of costume play) is expanding those contexts even further. Even on Halloween there are a lot of rules for how and when to wear the costume, especially at school (where they have a parade). Sometimes there are contests.

Then we turned to other cultural issues around costumes. Masquerades were all about wearing costumes that made you unrecognizable (as opposed to recognizable as something else). Costumes are not always for fun. They can be symbolic of ethnic identity or can have religious significance. They may be used in rituals (one could argue that Halloween is a ritual, too!). There are also special ways to dress for formal or festival occasions that are not necessarily considered costumes, such as wearing formal wear or putting on a particular type of clothing which is historically significant within a particular cultural community. Erin noted that we make a distinction between "dressing up" and "dressing up as" but that they both imply a departure from the normal.

There is more to a costume than putting on clothes. There is a spirit that comes with it, a sort of significance to altering our appearance that touches on identity. Allie Brosh has a hilarious take on this at Hyperbole and a Half. This happens in theater as well - I could always feel the difference between regular rehearsal and dress rehearsal as deeply significant.

Erin remarked that having a costume can mark you as a participant, as an insider rather than a bystander. Certainly, clothing is a part of identity politics. I noted that I choose a very specific style of dress when I attend conventions because I want to appear as a participant, but as an author rather than a cosplayer - in part because I don't want to cover up my face and have nobody be able to recognize me. Is my style of dress recognizable as a costume? I'm not sure whether others would call it that. Brian noted that authors will sometimes adopt the same style of dress to make themselves recognizable, as when Neil Gaiman wears all black, Jay Lake wears Hawaiian shirts, or George R.R. Martin has his unique style of dress (which is recognizable enough that people will dress up as him!). Erin told us about a time when she dressed up as her husband, David.

Crafting skills are an interesting issue connected with costumes, as Halloween costumes have started to be much more store-bought, but cosplay is very much an arena for crafters (It's nice to see these skills are not just being lost!). In the Harajuku district in Tokyo, where cosplay originated, it was originally in part just a form of extreme fashion, which sometimes imitated anime characters, but it has changed and been adopted in the US now to mean dressing up as anime or comic characters, or even characters from books. I personally believe that this has led to a resurgence of crafting, because you can see so many cosplayers talking proudly on the internet about how long it took them to create their marvelous costumes. Erin remarked that the internet is a great place to learn how to knit, tat, or crochet, since it's really easy to find instructional videos. Brian says that Pinterest is also important to crafters. The easier it is to share, the more helpful it is for crafting.

Then we took on the question of sexy costumes. There has been a big discussion recently about the trend toward making all women's costumes sexy. Erin says that college kids like to wear them and be sexy - and there must be someone buying these, or they would not make them! She said it was a case of escapism, and of transgressing by doing something that they wouldn't normally do. However, the question of objectification is a big issue, especially when this gets applied to younger and younger girls. Take Back Halloween is a great website for people who don't want to get sucked into this trend.

Another big problem that comes up in the area of costumes is cultural appropriation. Dressing as native peoples, or members of a particular religion, or wearing ritual clothing as a fun costume for Halloween is a big problem. Taking anything which is meaningful within one cultural sphere and appropriating it for a "fun costume" is an insult to the cultural groups and contexts out of which the costume originally came, and thus deeply problematic. A race of people is not to be "worn for fun." Notably, it is possible to wear some costumes like this with respectful intent. However, the effect it has on others is not necessarily about your intent. Just as with authorial intent, the reader owns the story (said Brian), in the case of a costume, the viewer owns his/her own reaction. My own personal recommendation is just to avoid the minefield and not try to engage in cultural appropriation at all.

We looked then at the occasions on which costumes are worn. Holidays are certainly included. Each holiday has a different definition of what is appropriate and why. Is there social complexity behind the wearing of a costume? For example, the masquerade party was an excuse for being in disguise, and this has led to all kinds of great literature over the years (since the time of Shakespeare, and earlier). In Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, there was a costume ball setting where people were supposed to dress as their own historical ancestors, and the host of the party had to work quite hard to make sure that they didn't choose a historical period during which any of the guests' families had been the bad guy. Thus, there was special significance to being able to dress as an auspicious ancestor.

Brian brought up an interesting issue surrounding the use of costumes by superheroes in comics. As he described it, the purpose of a character having a costume was so that the character would be instantly recognizable, even when the artist drawing the comic had changed. However, over time this has become so normal that we take it for granted that superheroes have costumes. Even in the movies, all the superheroes have costumes. This is an entirely new context for costume-wearing, however, and not necessarily a naturalistic one. In Captain America they made a very clever reason why Cap would be wearing a costume - and it had to do with his image being co-opted for theatrical productions, not anything to do with his superpowers. After all, being a super-soldier does not require one to wear a costume! In a sense it can be seen as impractical. Why would superheroes want to stand out rather than blend in? Why do villains not dress up as superheroes and co-opt their image? Maybe the costume is a way of indicating to police, "I am on your side." Interestingly, we did see the question taken up in The Incredibles, with the whole sequence about, "No capes!" Alan Moore took up this cape issue in the Watchmen comic, where he had a superhero sponsored by a bank, who got his cape stuck in a revolving door and got shot... whereupon nobody wears capes any more. Erin noted that no superhero ever wears camouflage. Of course, there is the secret identity issue, where you need to disguise yourself. We had a bit of a laugh about Superman, who somehow became unrecognizable simply by donning a pair of glasses. Jokes have been made about this (and justifiably so!).

Brian wrapped up the hour by telling us that no real Viking warriors wore horns on their helmets. Good to know!

Thanks to everyone who attended. If you are interested in watching the video for details, here it is:


  1. Though cultural appropriation can have another side as well: my grandmother's mother always dressed her as an Indian princess for Halloween. My grandmother found out when she grew up that it was because HER grandfather actually was an Indian chief.

    People didn't realize it, but yes, as you said, there are times it can be perfectly appropriate.

    1. Yes, that is one context where it would work. I saw a blog entry about places where dressing up as a person of another culture had been done out of respect and admiration, and that seemed to work, too. As I see it, it's really about being respectful and informed about the larger issues. On the other hand, it's not clear-cut when it comes to the eye of the beholder.